Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is How we invented Freedom and why it matters.
Shall I tell you the most depressing thing? It’s not that the party of Lincoln and Reagan will be fronted by a self-absorbed, foul-mouthed, thin-skinned, bullying, mendacious, meretricious, mountainous berk. It’s not the reputational damage that our most important ally will suffer in consequence: if I were Mexico, I’d be glad to pay for a sodding wall to keep Trump out. It’s not the prospect of another sleekit Clinton using Supreme Court appointments to ensure a full generation of left-wing judicial activism.
No, sadder than any of these things is what the rise of the Donald says about democracy. With the exception of Switzerland, the United States is the most democratic country on Earth. Its founders, who had led a revolt against Lord North’s remote and self-serving regime, were determined to construct a system where decision-makers were representatives, not rulers. To this day, American democracy is characterised by a number of peculiar features designed to keep the government in check: term limits, states’ rights, balanced budget rules, ballot initiatives, open primaries, the direct election of public officials from the sheriff and the school board to the chap in charge of bin collections.
By and large, the system has worked. Power has been dispersed, devolved and democratised. For over two centuries, Americans have taken it for granted that they can turn their leaders out of office and change the direction of the state through the ballot box. This is more exceptional than we sometimes realise. For the past 10,000 years, the normal condition of humanity has been servitude: the gang in charge plunder the territory under their control, and try to ensure that their children enjoy similar rights of legalised looting. A mediaeval European monarchy was, in this regard, little different from a modern African kleptocracy.
In their great study, Why Nations Fail, James A. Robinson and Daron Acemoğlu call this model ‘the extractive state’, and note that it is humanity’s default setting. The alternative, which they call ‘the inclusive state’, is based on the rule of law and the accountability of those in charge to the rest of the population. Inclusive states have developed only recently, and largely in the language in which you are reading these words.
The founders envisaged citizen-legislators, servants of the people who would gladly renounce office and return to private life, as Cincinnatus to his plough. Donald Trump, to put it as neutrally as I can, is not such a man. In his private life, as in his business, he is preening and pugnacious, quick to take offence and unable to forgive. Everything is about him. His politics are simply an extension of his business branding: Trump, Trump, Trump.
He displays no trace of awareness that he is aspiring to an office bigger than he is. When he was asked on Twitter by Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska: “Will you commit to rolling back Exec power & undoing Obama unilateral habit? These r sincere questions & I sincerely hope u answer rather than insult,” he replied, “@BenSasse looks more like a gym rat than a U.S. Senator. How the hell did he ever get elected?”
What are Trump’s policies? Meh. A former Democrat and Clinton crony who saw that the other side offered a better opening, he has dispensed with details like policy advisers and manifestoes. Tax, abortion rights, foreign affairs: it’s all fluid. Even the one, absolute trademark policy, that wretched wall, is, he says, “all negotiable”.
Yet no one seems to care. Americans want someone who will articulate their anger, and Trump certainly does that: he has gone from lashing out verbally to urging his supporters to “beat the crap” out of anyone heckling his rallies.
Trump is not the first politician to play on anger, of course. The French populist, Pierre Poujade, once said that he spoke for “the lied-to, the ripped-off, the ignored, the furious”, and that’s pretty much Trump’s shtick.
But America isn’t France, for Heaven’s sake. It is designed precisely so that voters don’t have to be lied to, ripped off, ignored or furious. It is the ultimate inclusive state. To see that great republic descend into pessimism, irrationalism and sheer nastiness is heartbreaking.
It’s true that Trump may still somehow be stopped, though his critics are having to devise increasingly ingenious mathematical formulations to show how it could happen even in theory. It’s true, too, that, short of some grand jury indictment for Hillary, it’s hard to see how he can actually become president.
That, though, isn’t the point. The damage is already being done. The Republican Party is being tainted by association, America is being diminished in the eyes of her allies and, worst of all, the whole concept of participatory democracy, based on open primaries, is being tarnished.
Regular readers will be familiar with my pet theory that, in general, voters get it right. Every recent British election has been lost by the party that most deserved to lose. This is because the general population is generally wiser than the elites. When the experts fell, in turn, for appeasement, prices and incomes policies, non-selective education, the ERM, the euro and the bailouts, the country at large remained rightly sceptical. In Edmund Burke’s metaphor, the great oxen have a better track record than the noisy grasshoppers.
Until now. All of a sudden, people just want to use the electoral process as a way to register their disdain. As poor Marco Rubio said in announcing the suspension of his campaign, no one wants optimism at the moment.
Which is a pity because, looked at rationally, Americans have every reason to be optimistic. Their country is peaceful and prosperous, which is why so many people from around the world pay it the ultimate compliment of wanting to settle there. The protectionism that Trump espouses would, paradoxically, hurt the people who are cheering for him the most enthusiastically: low-paid workers, who would face a rise in prices and, as productivity slowed, a drop in wages. When Trump declares that he loves the poorly educated, he means that he is happy to have their votes, not that he has ever stood up for them in his life: he is the ultimate beltway networker. And yet, to repeat, no one seems to care.
Ah, America. You deserve better. And we expect better.